Somers Camp, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria. January, 1990
I had only just turned 15.
I excitedly headed off to Somers, on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, for a girls camp that was a birth rite for kids like me who had family involved in an organisation called Lord Somers Camp & Power House. The not-for-profit organisation had, since 1931, taken strangers from diverse backgrounds, mixed them together and aimed to get them to see their similarities and learn to work together.
I thought I knew everything about the place. I did know some of what happens but I was heading into something far deeper and profound than I could possibly imagine.
It was an immersive week of twists and turns, like a board game on a massive scale. There were competitive sporting activities, creative activities and a social game unmatched by any reality TV show: all designed to get us out of our comfort zones and find out who we are and what we’re really capable of.
Day one was not much fun: it was loud, disorientating and full of social awkwardness as we tried to get know the group of 80 new people we were sharing very close quarters with.
Day two and things got interesting, before lunch, the entertainment began.
We were ushered around the perimeter of the centre lawn of the camp. The familiar driving electric guitar riff of Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time started pumping out of the Radio Somers – 3RS speakers.
A woman strides over the lawn, slightly out of time with the music, wearing a black and purple bustier (a size or two too small for the ample bosom and short, not-so-petit torso), fishnet stockings, high heels and a big, straggly black wig made of strips of black crepe paper, blowing in the strong sea breeze.
Her name was Bev and I’d known her distantly all my life but I’d never seen her like this. I’d never seen anything quite like this!
A line of fine young sailors from HMAS Cerberus in their white uniforms appeared and formed a corridor for Bev to dance between. Odd bits of black crepe paper made their way loose from her wig and were flying around the lawn. As the melody kicked in, Bev started miming along and the sailors, down on their knees, started thrusting upwards in time with the music.
We all went wild, partly because of Bev’s surprising performance and partly because there was usually a strict, “no males in camp” policy and our little hormones were having a party with those sailors!
Bev kept the energy high through the whole song. Cher would been impressed.
The act ended to huge applause and cheers and we headed inside for lunch, buzzing and wondering if we’d just dreamed it all. It was outrageously wrong and yet so perfectly right.
I’ve wondered many times what made that particular stunt so memorable for me. The young sailors had all volunteered to come and had been warned what they were in for, and the gender role reversal of an older woman and a lot of younger men was novel to me in 1990. As gorgeous as those boys were though, it was really all about Bev. Any one of the many 20-something, slim young leaders at Somers could have been given the Cher role, but they wouldn’t have had the same impact.
It was inspiring because Bev was a fairly quiet woman, hard of hearing, middle aged and a mum of three. She had no performance training and was, well, not exactly talented, but went for it with every ounce of both spirit and careless abandon she could muster. She bloody rocked it and it made every one of us want to do the same. Bev was leading by example. She was way outside the suburban comfort zone of her daily life and that was the whole point. After a lifetime of society and magazines telling me to aspire to completely unachievable images, finally, here was a woman and an attitude to life I could aspire to.
Bev is still is one the hardest working women I know. The first to arrive and the last to leave, volunteering for the organisation, often doing the less glamorous jobs. If you didn’t know her or the history, you’d still not pick that there’s a wild woman in there.
I’m still involved with Lord Somers Camp and Power House and volunteer at Somers occasionally. At every event that revolves around the women of Somers, old stories are told and as one of the many brilliant, hilarious, brave and surprisingly meaningful stunts at a girls camp, Bev as Cher, the sailors and If I Could Turn Back Time are always right up there in our recollections.
© Steph Payne. Steph is one third of the Melbourne folk trio Paisley & Plaid. She directs choirs, Corisande Vocal Group and Willin Wimmin, and teaches singing at Melbourne’s CAE. She also runs Wyndukes, Werribee’s ukulele group and the Newport Fiddle & Folk Club’s new banjo group.